Don’t waste a good crisis. Takeaway lessons from the pandemic for improved mental health
Source: Photo by Aakanksha Panwar on Unsplash
With the intensity of the COVID pandemic mostly behind us, we are finally afforded the opportunity to step back and take stock of the longer-term effects on mental health and mental health care—including some unanticipated benefits for emotional health.
The news media tells us about the pandemic’s impact on lost lives, damage to supply chains, to the economy, and most of us have felt some psychological impacts of the pandemic increased in the form of stress, depression, or anxiety. The cumulative effects from the fear of contracting COVID, periods of isolation, unemployment or underemployment for some of us, and a sudden dramatic change in life circumstances are real. Long COVID and persistent mental health challenges will be with us for some time. Persistent neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with COVID-19 have been documented.
However, while the undesirable effects are well documented, let us step back for a moment and take a note of how Covid might have unexpected benefits for people who need mental health support and for mental health providers.
The de-stigmatization of therapy
Before COVID, when most of us had more social contact working in shared offices and socializing, people tended to keep their mental health struggles extremely private. The stigma of speaking about mental health made it very difficult for people to open up about their issues. COVID caused a flip: Zoom team meetings and online check-ins with managers often started with, “how are you coping today?” We all felt the effects of isolation and understood that our colleagues, friends, and family also struggled emotionally. It became okay to open up about, or at least admit to, emotional difficulties.
Employers offered telephone hotlines for anyone experiencing increased anxiety or depression to reach out for immediate support. The isolation of not being with people brought the concealed struggles to the surface, destigmatized mental health challenges, and made it easier for the people who struggled the most to reach out for help.
People admitting that they were struggling:
- Reduced the stigma associated with mental health struggles.
- Normalized the idea that it’s common for people going through significant changes and life stressors to need help.
- Lowered the stigma barrier to accessing psychological or psychiatric support.
Lowering the barriers to accessing therapy
The shift from primarily in-person to readily available online therapy sessions substantially lowers the barriers to accessing therapy.
- Online therapy is more private: The fear of a lack of sufficient privacy, or concerns about possible effects on one’s career kept some people from taking advantage of in-office mental health care.
- Online therapy is more comfortable for many people: Therapy can be less threatening when accessed confidentially, from the comfort and privacy of one’s own home.
- Online therapy is more convenient: especially for people with busy schedules or mobility challenges. People who were previously unable to consistently attend their appointments found it more convenient to access care online, resulting in fewer missed appointments, and more sustained professional care.
Where fear prompts proactivity
Some people who had hospitalizations in the past for mental health challenges were concerned about contracting COVID if they were hospitalized again. This concern prompted them to be more proactive about their care, seeking help earlier so as to avoid a possible future hospitalization.
Build on the openings created by the crisis
Following the dictum of “never waste a good crisis,” we can take advantage of the unexpected opportunities that the pandemic created for improved mental health.
If you are an employer or manager, continue to talk about mental health and do your best to destigmatize reaching out for help.
If you are struggling yourself, take advantage of the opening up of online care options to find a psychiatrist or another mental health practitioner, such as a psychologist, social worker, or psychotherapist, who can best meet your unique needs.
If you are a mental health provider, consider how you can best deliver care to your clients. As a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan, and as a faculty member at NYU, I see how people who would have suffered alone are reaching out for help. I see how my patients are more able to access care thanks to telehealth, and I see how patients are more able to keep appointments online—providing greater continuity of care.
The coronaviruses prompted all of us to change. We have become more open to reaching out for help and more creative in how we deliver help. By keeping these channels open, and creating new initiatives, we can effectively act to build better mental health for ourselves and for our clients.